Morgridge Institute for Research

Measuring the molecules of life – Q&A with Josh Coon

Proteins are the workhorse molecules that perform all the functions in the cell and the body. Being able to detect and measure proteins is critical to figuring out basic biology, and the signature of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes. Josh Coon is creating technologies to do exactly that.

This is a featured lab as part of the Metabolism Initiative.

What is your current research focus?

My research is about building and using scientific instruments called spectrometers that can measure molecules in living systems. One of the groups of molecules we spend a lot of energy trying to measure are proteins.

Proteins are the molecules that do pretty much all the functions in the cell and the body. There was a lot of excitement about sequencing the human genome — genetic DNA material that every cell has — but the genome is simply a set of instructions to tell the cell which proteins to make. It’s the protein molecules that do all the work, and you have to be able to detect and measure them to understand what’s going on. That’s what our technology tries to do.

Traditional laboratories don’t have these types of tools, so we work closely with people studying all kinds of disease, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, or asthma. Whatever biological system or disease you’re studying, you need to understand which proteins are there and how they’re changing.

How does protein dysfunction contribute to disease?

Proteins work together in a cell to do a function. If one protein isn’t working or is missing or gets mutated because of a disease, then the whole assembly might not work anymore. Knowing how they interact is critical.

For example, a protein called CARM1 puts little tags on other proteins. We don’t know the function of those tags but we know this protein is involved in breast cancer. There were about 10 known targets, and using our technologies we identified 200. This will help us understand more about how it works, and how to guide the treatment.

Where did your interest technology come from?

When I was in high school in Michigan I liked fly fishing, and to get to the best places you needed a boat. I didn’t have one so I built one. I just liked building things. Then in organic chemistry in college I got exposed to a mass spectrometer and I loved how that instrument could answer questions. I was driven by the idea of analyzing how to distinguish something from something else. Then, it was pretty clear to me that this field of mass spectrometry joins both of those things, building and analyzing.

Now it takes a day to detect all the proteins present in a system, but we need to be able to do that much faster. It’s going to take creative ideas on how we build and run these devices. I would say in 10 years we will be able to take a sample from a person and in half an hour determine which proteins are present and how much of them. That would be huge.

Then we’ve got to figure out all the interactions these proteins are having with each other. That is going to be at least a 20-year problem.

What is your ultimate goal?

Through technology, we have the potential to not just help cure one disease, but to provide answers to many different conditions. Major changes in biology often happen because of a new disruptive technology, and that is how we hope to have an impact.